The Garmin Approach S6 is the best golf GPS watch we’ve tested to date, combining overhead hole maps with a touchscreen to determine the distance to any point on the golf course…and it’s all available on your wrist. When we first heard about the overhead maps, we had doubts – how can you implement that level of functionality on the limited screen space of a watch? Garmin has devised an elegant solution using automatic zoom. At the tee box, the S6 automatically zooms on the area on the hole map that corresponds to your typical driving distance (which you input into the watch when you set it up). So if you’ve told the watch that you drive the ball 250 yards, it will zoom in to the area 250 yards down the fairway to show you what’s around your typical landing area. More about that below, but it really is a nifty way to provide the most relevant information to you when you need it – and there’s always the option to zoom back out and pick another area.
Garmin also provides an excellent set of features, including full scoring and statistics tracking (with the ability to sync the S6 to your Garmin Connect account and view aggregated data across all saved rounds), shot measurement, Bluetooth pairing to your phone to enable notifications to your watch, an odometer, and “PinPointer”, which is supposed to tell you the direction of the pin if you are taking a blind shot. But wait, there’s more! The Garmin S6 also has a “SwingStrength” feature to measure (you guessed it) your swing strength and tempo and a “TempoTraining” feature to work on achieving the optimal tempo for your swing. There are varying levels of success with which these features are executed, but at the very least they make the Garmin S6 fun to play with.
We won’t lie to you – the $399.99 price tag is steep. And there are some areas for improvement, like having hazard distances available in list form, and not just through using the touchscreen. But we’re willing to overlook those issues because we’ve fallen for the Garmin Approach S6, and fallen hard. In our opinion, the S6 truly sets the standard among the golf GPS watches currently on the market.
- Overhead hole maps – on a watch!
- Loads of statistical analysis available through synching to Garmin Connect
- Strong course coverage
- Handicap scoring
- Can’t see scorecard or statistics on the device (but can sync and view them on a mobile app or web page)
- No list of distances to hazards – you must use the overhead hole map
Retail price: $399.99
Three year total cost: $399.99
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- Really nice charging clip into which you snap the watch, enabling a nice snug connection every time. It may seem silly to highlight this, but on a surprising number of watches it’s difficult to tell whether the charging clip is connected or not.
- No wall charger is provided, so the only way to charge the S6 is by plugging the USB cable into your computer.
- The setup process for the Garmin Approach S6 was extremely simple and well designed. On the watch, you select a language (English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, or Swedish) and unit of measurement (yards or meters), then enter your typical driver distance (which determines where the hole map will be zoomed when you’re standing on the tee box) and whether you’re right or left handed (which is relevant to the SwingStrength and TempoTraining features). After that, the watch directs you to the Garmin web site to download the Garmin Express program to your PC/Mac. Once you’ve done that and launched Garmin Express, you can create a Garmin Connect account online (to keep track of your scores and statistics), and the program will tell you if you need to update the course maps and/or software. You can then elect whether to perform any updates and sync the watch. The entire process took less than 10 minutes, and the instructions are complete enough that there was never any stress about whether things were being done correctly. If you need to download a new set of maps (usually if you’re changing geographical zones), it takes about 15 additional minutes. As a nice touch, Garmin lets you know that it is safe to walk away from that process so long as you don’t disconnect the device.
- Once you’ve gone through the setup process, just charge up the battery and you’re good to go.
- The only way you can sync the S6 to get software updates and course map updates is through the Garmin Express software on your PC/Mac. You can sync your saved rounds to your Garmin Connect account through either Garmin Express or by downloading the Garmin Connect mobile app and pairing the S6 to your mobile phone via Bluetooth. If you download the mobile app and log in to your Garmin Connect account, the app will guide you through simple steps to pair the S6 to your phone. From that point on, any scores that you save on the S6 will automatically be uploaded to your Garmin Connect account through the app.
- One problem with the automatic uploading of your scores is that the S6 doesn’t differentiate between an actual round or when you’re just playing around with the S6 and looking at courses – it will just upload the score whenever you end a round. You can fix this by deleting the round, which you can do from your Garmin Connect account on the web. We couldn’t find a way to delete a round from the Garmin Connect mobile app.
- Once the S6 is paired to your phone via Bluetooth, the S6 will display notifications of incoming calls, text messages (showing you the message itself), calendar reminders (displaying the name of the event), and any other notifications that you receive on your phone (i.e. events in your iPhone’s Passbook). The S6 can also provide an audible chime when you receive a notification, but your playing partners would probably prefer if you turned that feature off.
- But of course it’s never all rainbows and unicorns. During one attempted sync of the S6 to a Mac, the Garmin Express software wouldn’t connect with the S6. After futzing around for about 15 minutes, including connecting and disconnecting the USB cable, rebooting the Mac, and having Garmin Express “forget” the device, we finally landed upon the idea of turning off the S6 and turning it back on (and then rebooting the Mac). Lo and behold, that did the trick. This was our one area of frustration in the setup/syncing process.
- Critical Golf Test: Garmin earned a perfect score in our course coverage test, where we select a random cross-section of courses across the country and evaluate whether those courses are available within a manufacturer’s databse.
- Manufacturer’s Claims: Garmin claims to cover 38,000 worldwide courses which places it near the top of our course coverage comparison test. We put all of the weight of our scoring on the Critical Golf Test, as the Manufacturer’s Claims are based solely on what is listed on their web sites and in their marketing materials.
EASE OF USE
- The Garmin Approach S6 has a screen diameter of 1 inch, which provides a viewing area of about 0.8 square inches – very typical for a watch GPS device. It’s about the size of an average watch, allowing you to avoid the “that’s a big honkin’ watch” reaction evoked by many of the S6’s competitors.
- The S6 weighs about 1.6 ounces (as tested), which is lighter than the previous generation S1 and S3 and makes the S6 the lightest golf GPS watch we have tested. The rubber and plastic body is available in either black/white (with a black body and a band that is black on the exterior and white on the interior), black/orange (with a black body and a band that is black on the exterior and orange on the interior), or white/black (with a white body and a band that is white on the exterior and black on the interior).
- Navigating through the features of the Garmin Approach S6 relies upon the use of a combination of the touchscreen and the four physical buttons – you cannot solely utilize one or the other. As a result, the user interface is more of a learned process than an intuitive one.
- Garmin markets up to 8 hours of battery life while using GPS. We had no troubles making it through a slow round on a public course, and since 8 hours of juice is unlikely to make it through two rounds (definitely not on a muni on a Sunday), we didn’t bother testing exactly how far it would go in a second round. Garmin claims up to 4 months of battery life if you use the S6 as a watch only, and 15 hours if you use it as a watch with Bluetooth notifications turned on.
For more details, check out the Critical Golf comparison of golf GPS device features.
COURSE DETAIL AND MAPPING
- The true differentiating factor of the Garmin Approach S6 is the availability of overhead hole maps on a watch screen. As mentioned above, the clever implementation that makes this work on such a small screen is the use of an automatic zoom function.
- Hole View – Shows the hole number, the par of the hole, the distance to the center of the green, and, in smaller font, the distances to the near and far points on the green. If the position of the “flag” is moved on the Green View (see below), the distance to the repositioned “flag” will be displayed here instead of the distance to the center of the green. In addition, if you are using handicap scoring, the S6 will calculate and indicate (with a number of dots) how many strokes you receive on that hole. How cool is that?!?!
- Layup View – Touching the Hole View screen will advance you to the Layup View, which is a purely text screen displaying the distance to layups every 50 yards (from a 100 yard layup to a 250 hard layup), as well as the distance to any doglegs on the hole. Since this is only a list of text distances, there isn’t much context to where the layups are on the hole, so we found the layup distances to be largely useless. Of greater utility, however, is that the distance to any user-created locations (up to five per hole) are also displayed on this screen (see below).
- PinPointer View – Touching the Layup View screen activates the PinPointer feature, which is essentially a compass where the “needle” indicates the direction of the pin and in which the distance to the pin is displayed in the middle of the screen. The intent of PinPointer is to provide the direction to the pin when you have a completely blind approach shot. In our testing, the direction indicated by the needle was pretty rough, and often varied from the true direction by several degrees. As a result, we wouldn’t advise relying on this function for any real indication of where the pin is – at best it just gives you a VERY rough idea of the general direction of the green.
- Map View – At the tee, the Map View will default to showing an overhead map of the hole zoomed around the distance that you typically hit your driver. As discussed above, as part of the initial set-up process of the S6 you input your driver distance (this can be revised later from the device). When you touch on any point on the zoomed view, the S6 draws an arc on the screen through that point and displays the distance to reach that arc. The zoomed view will also refresh to be centered on the point that you touched. It’s not perfect – when you’re trying to touch a point on the screen, your finger blocks your view, and the zoomed view displays hazards, but not trees, which is odd, since we know that Garmin includes trees in its overhead maps on other golf GPS devices. But with a little practice, it becomes pretty useful.
You also have the ability to zoom out to see the entire shape of the hole. From the zoomed out view, you can touch any point on the hole to zoom in on that point. You can also touch the flag icon on the Map View to zoom in on the green (see “Green View” below).
- Green View – This screen displays a graphic of the shape of the green and any surrounding hazards, with a “flag” that can be positioned by simply touching the screen– the distance to the “flag” is given in this view.
- Scoring View – Pressing the bottom right button on the S6 will put you into scoring and statistics mode. These views enable you to enter your score, number of putts, and whether the fairway was hit or whether it was to the left or right (but not short). Your score relative to par (+3, etc.) for the round is displayed on each of these screens, but there is no way to view an overall scorecard or the statistics for the round on the device itself – you have to sync with a mobile device or computer to view that level of detail (see below under “Features – Statistics”).
- Time View – Displays the time and the date.
- Measurement View – Activated when you press the “Mark Ball” button, this view displays the distance away from where you were when the “Mark Ball” button was pressed. Holding down the “Mark Ball” button will reset the point from which distances are measured. The Garmin S6 will automatically reset the measuring point when you advance to the next hole.
- Hole handicap information is not displayed on the Garmin Approach S6. However, the S6 does know the hole handicap, and if you enable handicap scoring, it will determine and display how many strokes you receive on each hole on the Hole View screen.
- Users can custom mark up to 5 locations per hole. When you are standing at the location you want to mark, you press the “Save Location” button, and then choose one of the set labels to identify that location – bunker, water, fairway, tree, hazard or layup. The distance to that location will be indicated on the Layup View (i.e. you will see “Tree 35” when you are 35 yards away from the tree that you marked). The locations are saved and available to you for any future rounds that you play on that course.
- Shot Tracking. The Garmin Approach S6 can measure shot distances, and will continue to do so even if you toggle to different screens. If you advance to the next hole (either automatically or by manually changing the hole), the distance will reset. There is no ability to save the shot distance information or link the distances to clubs in order to calculate average shot distances.
- Auto-Advance. The S6 will automatically advance to the next hole during play. Manually changing holes is easily done through the up/down buttons. There is no way to turn off the auto-advance feature.
- Scoring. You can track your own score throughout the round, but not for any of your playing partners. The Garmin Approach S6 lets you select between standard stroke play scoring and Stableford scoring. It also enables you to utilize handicap scoring, implemented either through manually entering the number of strokes to be subtracted from your score or letting the S6 make an automatic calculation based on your handicap index and the course’s slope rating. As mentioned above, the Hole View will indicate how many strokes you receive on that hole if you’ve activated handicap scoring. Impressive!
- Statistics.The Garmin Approach S6 will track a number of statistics, including the number of putts, the number of greens in regulation (which is automatically determined by the S6 based on the par for the hole, your score on the hole and the number of putts), whether the fairway was hit or missed, and whether it was missed left or right.
- Scoring and Statistics Evaluation.You can save your rounds to the Garmin Approach S6, but cannot view the scorecard or statistics on the watch itself. You can, however, sync the S6 either through Bluetooth to the Garmin Connect mobile app or by plugging it into your computer and using the Garmin Express software. The scorecards and statistics are then viewable either on the Garmin Connect mobile app or the Garmin Connect web page. There’s a ridiculous amount of information that can be viewed – not only can you see how you’ve scored on a particular course over time, but you can see the data for each hole. For example, you can see aggregated data on how you’ve performed on the 8th hole of your local muni – your fairways hit, which direction you’ve missed the fairway, GIR percentage, and putting average. One fun feature is that Garmin will show your “dream” round for a given course by adding up the best score you’ve gotten on each hole to show what you could’ve shot on a perfect day.
- Notifications. If you pair your mobile phone to the Garmin Approach S6 through Bluetooth, the watch will then display any alerts generated by your phone (whether they relate to your calendar or specific apps). It will also notify you of any incoming phone calls or text messages (including showing the content of the text).
- Swing Training Apps.The Garmin Approach S6 incorporates two training modes to help you improve your swing –TempoTraining and SwingStrength. TempoTraining is based on studies that have shown that tour pros almost all have the same 3:1 ratio of the duration of their backswings to their downswings. The total duration of the swing may vary, but the ratio of backswing to downswing is uncannily always 3:1. TempoTraining aims to help you develop the same tempo. The S6 uses an accelerometer to determine when your backswing and downswing begin and end, and will graphically display whether you’re fast or slow in each segment. It can also emit tones to tell you when to begin and end each portion of your swing, but while the tones were much more useful than just reviewing the results after the fact, we quickly determined that those around us on the driving range weren’t big fans of the incessant beeping.
SwingStrength doesn’t really measure the absolute power of your swing. Rather, you calibrate it by taking swings until you’ve had one that you consider to be “good” (after each calibration swing the device asks you if the swing was good or not). Once you’ve selected a “good” swing, the SwingStrength app will compare future swings to that “good” swing and indicate their relative power (i.e. 85% of the “good” swing, or 110% of the “good” swing). You will also see a graphic display of the swing tempo from TempoTraining. You can calibrate 3 clubs – a wood, a long iron and a short iron.
It’s hard to predict whether either of these apps will lead to any real improvement in your swing, although if you practice consistently, we would guess that they can only have a positive effect. TempoTraining seems to have the most promise if the audible tones are left on, but as we mentioned, it may drive the person next to you on the driving range to wrap a 9-iron around your neck. Caveat emptor!
- Miscellaneous. The S6 has a basic odometer that displays the distance you’ve traveled and how long you have been traveling.
- Preferences. The Garmin Approach S6 offers a broad range of adjustable settings, including whether tones are emitted by the watch, the look of the display (black on white or white on black, and the color of the accent lines), the scoring method (stroke play or Stableford), how handicaps are determined (manually or through your index and the course’s slope rating), whether statistic tracking is enabled, whether the time is manually entered or automatic and whether it is displayed in 12 or 24 hour format, the language (English, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish or Swedish), the units (meters or yards), and whether the screen locks automatically or not.
For more details, check out the Critical Golf comparison of golf GPS device features.
The S6 returned distances within our standard expected range of variance for GPS devices, usually plus or minus up to 4 yards from actual distances (based on marked sprinkler heads).
Retail Price: The Garmin S6 golf GPS watch retails for $399.99, which makes it the priciest golf GPS watch in our tests.
Fees for Access to Course Database: As with other devices in the Garmin family, the Approach S6 carries no additional fees for course map updates.
Three-Year Total Cost of Ownership: With no additional yearly fees to download the latest course information, the three-year total cost for the S6 remains $399.99. At this price point, it is still the costliest golf GPS watch in our tests.
Value: Yes, it’s very expensive. But it is sooooo cool, with features that no other watch can touch. If you’re looking at a high end golf GPS watch, we think the Garmin Approach S6 is worth the splurge.